Christ in Speaking Picture: Representational Anxiety in Early Modern English Poetry
This dissertation explores the influence of Reformation representational anxiety on early seventeenth-century poetic depictions of Christ. I study the poetic shift from physical to metaphorical portrayals of Christ that occurred after the English Reformation infused religious symbols and visual images with transgressive power. Contextualizing the juncture between visual and verbal representation, I examine the poetry alongside historical artifacts including paternosters, a painted glass window, an emblem, sermons, and the account of a state trial in order to trace signs of sensory “loss” in the verse of John Donne, George Herbert, Aemilia Lanyer, and John Milton.
The introduction provides a historical and poetic overview of sixteenth-century influences on religious verse. The first chapter contrasts Donne’s sermons—which vividly describe Christ—with his poems, in which Christ’s face is often obscured or avoided. In the chapter on George Herbert’s The Temple, I show how Herbert’s initial, physical portraits of Christ increasingly give way to metaphorical images as the book progresses, paralleling the Reformation’s internalization of images. The third chapter shows that Aemilia Lanyer’s Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum makes use of pastoral conventions to fashion Christ as a shepherd-spouse, the divine object of desire. In the final chapter I argue that three poems from John Milton’s 1645 volume can be read as containing signs of Milton’s emerging Arianism.
Depictions of Christ in the poetry of Donne, Herbert, Lanyer, and Milton reveal the period’s contestation over images; the sensory strain of these metaphorical representations results in memorable, vivid verse.